Case of the Missing Pontoons
Fourth in a series on the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg
‘Behind the Lines,’ by Donald C. Pfanz
AT FREDERICKSBURG, military success hinged on pontoons, those ungainly
5-foot-wide, 21-foot-long wooden boats used to construct temporary, floating
When Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside took command of the Union Army of the
Potomac in November 1862, he determined to shift his massive, 115,000-man
force from the vicinity of Warrenton to Fredericksburg. From there, he
would advance toward Richmond, following the route of the Richmond, Fredericksburg,
and Potomac Railroad (the modern Amtrak line), using the railroad and
nearby navigable rivers to supply his army.
There was just one drawback to the plan: the Rappahannock River. As
Burnside moved east, the Rappahannock broadened from a shallow stream
to an unfordable river. By the time it reached Fredericksburg, it was
400 feet wide and impassable to troops. That’s where the pontoons came
in. If Burnside brought his own temporary bridges, he could cross the
river quickly and seize Fredericksburg before Lee could march his army
down from Culpeper to stop him.
Unfortunately, the pontoon boats and other bridging material (collectively
known as the “pontoon train”) had been left back at Berlin, Md., near
Harpers Ferry, when the Union army crossed the Potomac River a few weeks
earlier. Burnside knew this and had made arrangements through his boss,
Gen. in Chief Henry Halleck, to have the bridges sent from Berlin to Washington,
and thence via Aquia Creek to Fredericksburg.
If all went according to schedule, the bridges would reach the Tidewater
town at the same time as Burnside's army, enabling it to cross the river
But in life, things seldom go according to schedule. When the Army of
the Potomac reached Fredericksburg on Nov. 17, 1862, the bridges were
not there. In fact, as Burnside would soon learn, most of them were still
back at Washington, more than 50 miles away. Until they arrived, his army
could do nothing.
The delay was the result of bad communication, bad planning and bad
weather. The engineers in charge of the pontoon train had to float dozens
of heavy boats down the C&O Canal towpath 50 miles to Washington.
Once there, they had to assemble transportation for the train, then take
it overland another 50 miles to Fredericksburg. A second train would go
by water. The engineers had less than one week from the time they received
the order to complete the job. It would be a Herculean task under the
best of circumstances.
Poor communication hindered the operation from the start. It was Halleck’s
job to order the pontoon train to Fredericksburg. President Abraham Lincoln
had brought the general to Washington in July 1862 to provide unified
leadership to the army’s war effort. “Old Brains,” however, proved to
be a greater liability than an asset.
Although a good organizer and military theorist, Halleck had no aptitude
for command and shunned responsibility of any kind. McClellan characterized
him as “the most hopelessly stupid of all men in high position,” while
Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles confided to his diary that Halleck
“originates nothing ... plans nothing, suggests nothing, is good for nothing.”
In the case of the pontoons, Halleck issued orders for the pontoons
to be sent to Aquia Creek, but he failed to impress upon the engineer
in charge of operation the importance of speed. Having given the order,
he washed his hands of the operation.
After Halleck, primary responsibility for getting the pontoon bridges
to Fredericksburg on time fell to Gen. Daniel Woodbury, commander of the
army’s Engineer Brigade. Woodbury received Halleck’s orders to
send a pontoon train to Aquia Creek on Nov. 12. That same day, one of
Woodbury's subordinates, Maj. Ira Spaulding of the 50th New York Engineers,
received an order from the Army of the Potomac directing him to ship the
pontoons and bridging to Washington. The order had been written a week
After consulting Quartermaster Gen. Montgomery Meigs, Woodbury decided
to send one pontoon train by land and the other by water. The water-borne
train, led by Maj. J. A. Magruder, left Washington at 5 p.m., Nov. 16.
Magruder lashed 48 pontoon boats together into a “raft” and towed them
down the Potomac River behind a steamboat. Just below the capital, the
steamer ran aground on a sandbar. Even so, Magruder and his train reached
Aquia Creek on Nov. 18, just one day after Burnside’s army.
Spaulding’s train did not do so well. Before he set out, he had to secure
transportation for the train, including dozens of special wagons, 270
horses and harnesses and teamsters. It all took time-lots of time. To
make matters worse, when the horses arrived, Spaulding discovered that
they had never been broken. Precious hours were spent assembling the harness
gear and getting the horses accustomed to wearing it.
It was Nov. 19 before the land train was ready to go. Crossing the Potomac
River via Long Bridge, Spaulding’s pontoon train slowly wended its way
south along the Telegraph Road amid a steady rain. Fifty miles away, on
the Rappahannock River, the vanguard of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern
Virginia was marching into Fredericksburg.
For two days, Spaulding’s train struggled south on Telegraph Road amid
unrelenting rains. The heavy boats and the muddy roads made progress tortuously
slow. Three days out of Washington Spaulding reached the Occoquan River,
which recent rains had flooded. The major ordered his troops to unload
the heavy boats and construct a bridge across the swollen stream. Another
day was lost.
Spaulding was in a stew. By now, he realized that he was behind schedule
and that the army was waiting for him. Rather than continue across country
at his snaillike pace, he instead lashed his 58 pontoon boats together
into a large raft and had a ship from Washington pull it down the Potomac
River to Aquia Creek, as Magruder had done several days before. The horses
and wagons continued to Aquia Creek by land, but, because they were now
divested of their load, they were able to move more quickly.
Spaulding’s flotilla reached the Fredericksburg area on Nov. 24; his
horses and wagons arrived by land one day later. After two weeks of fighting
treacherous sandbars, muddy roads, and swollen creeks, the engineers had
finally delivered the bridges. Unfortunately, they had arrived too late
to do much good. The Confederate army had reached Fredericksburg five
days earlier and now stood ready to contest the crossing.
Burnside’s campaign had foundered in the Virginia mud.
NEXT: Lee rushes to defend Fredericksburg
DONALD C. PFANZ is staff historian with Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania
National Military Park. He is author of “Abraham Lincoln at City Point”
and “Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier’s Life.”